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Managing Waste in Your Small Business

Filed under Going Green. Fact checked on May 24, 2012.

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Reducing the amount of waste generated by your business, either through changing wasteful business practices or by recycling, can have an immediate impact on both your bottom line and the environment. Paper and other disposable products can be reused, recycled, or even refurbished and used again.

It's an unfortunate fact of life that we humans are generating an ever-increasing amount of waste. In the past 35 years, the amount of solid waste generated, on average, by each man, woman, and child in the U.S. has risen to 4.4 pounds a day from 2.7 pounds a day, according to the EPA. Biocycle magazine, an industry trade publication, reports that the U.S. generated 409 million tons of non-hazardous waste in 2001, up from 247 million tons just 11 years earlier.

Waste management is a dirty business involving different methods of disposal, depending upon whether the waste is hazardous or non-hazardous; residential or industrial; or solid, liquid, or gas. Non-hazardous waste can be dumped into a landfill, it can be incinerated, or it can be buried. Hazardous waste disposal, on the other hand, is an industry unto itself.

Some of our waste can be recycled. The cost of municipal waste disposal, to take one example, is estimated to be $100 per ton, according to the EPA. By some estimates, 32 percent of municipal waste is recycled, a promising number that has been climbing in recent years as more and more municipalities implement recycling programs. Even so, the EPA has estimated that only about 2 percent of all waste generated is municipal waste. Thus, despite all the best-intentioned efforts to promote recycling, municipal programs aren't even touching 98 percent of the waste we generate, which includes industrial waste, hospital waste, construction waste, and nuclear waste.

The truth is that we really don't know the full scope of the waste we generate and what happens to it. What we do know, however, is that the costs associated with waste disposal, not even including factors such as the cost to the environment, are high and are getting higher every year.

Recycling is one of the simplest yet most effective options for helping to offset the costs. Although implementing a recycling program isn't difficult, it does require discipline. Recycling, however, attacks the problem only after it has occurred. An even better approach, which can be used in conjunction with recycling, is to reduce the amount of waste generated.

Reducing the Waste Your Business Generates

Much is said about recycling, but relatively little about reducing waste in general. Although recycling is important, it isn't as effective in reducing landfills as trying to produce less waste from the beginning.

One tactic for reducing waste is to reuse products whenever possible, rather than to dispose of them.

Work Smart

Printer ink is often a significant expense for some small businesses. Rather than continuing to buy new ink cartridges, disposing of or recycling the old cartridges, and then buying new cartridges again, consider refilling your current cartridges when they run dry. Most printer ink cartridges can be refilled 7 or 8 times, but it's in the printer ink producers' best interest to have you buy new ink cartridges each time, so you don't hear too much about refilling. New businesses, serving this need conveniently and inexpensively, have emerged in recent years.

Reducing paper waste. Because many small businesses generate a significant amount of paper, this is a good target for reuse. Between 1970 and 1991, paper consumption in the U.S. doubled. Keeping paper out of landfills is a worthwhile cause. According to the EPA, decomposing paper sitting in landfills releases methane gas, which is a potent greenhouse gas (20 times more potent than carbon dioxide).

Other paper-related reuse strategies include the following:

  • When printing copies for internal use, use both sides of the paper. In other words, when you finish using printed papers, flip them over and put them back in the tray to be reused.
  • Set your printer to print on both sides of the paper, if it has that capability.
  • Rather than buy post-it notes or other note-taking papers, use scrap paper, such as opened envelopes.
  • Use the back pages of writing pads and legal pads. In the alternative, use those backs as scrap paper to make notes.
  • Use electronic-only documents whenever possible.

While these suggestions may seem to some as desperate, and even, when we imagine reusing paper scraps, borderline pitiful, they do point to a basic truth, which is that most of us generate far more paper and other waste than we actually need. Even if scrounging around in the trash can for scraps of paper on which to write notes of a telephone conversation isn't your idea of going green, you can at least begin to become more conscious of how much unnecessary paper and other waste you produce and begin to become less wasteful.

Purchase environmentally-friendly goods. While reusing wherever possible is a good green strategy, generally, small businesses are not going to make a significant impact on total nationwide waste by reusing a few products here and there. They, can, however, have an outsized impact by joining the movement to purchase goods that use less energy to produce, package, and transport, as well as goods that use materials that can be more readily recycled. For example, consider the following recommendations for reducing waste:

  • Buy goods in concentrated, dry, or bulk form to reduce transportation and packaging costs.
  • Pick flexible packaging materials instead of rigid packaging, since flexible packaging typically takes less energy to make and transport.
  • Pick goods with the highest ratio of product weight to packaging weight, when possible. For example, tuna in a foil pouch is better than tuna in metal cans.
Work Smart

Another possibility is to seek out a waste audit to get suggestions for how best to reduce waste in your business. For an online do-it-yourself tool, see this online waste audit tool. For direct assistance with a waste audit, contact your state environmental protection office.

Recycling To Reduce Waste

Recycling is defined as the process of converting used materials into new materials. Not every type of material can be recycled; those materials most commonly recycled are aluminum, cardboard, glass, paper, plastics, and steel. And contrary to what many believe, recycling is typically not one to one, meaning that material that gets recycled isn't necessarily converted to that same material. Thus, old glass doesn't necessarily end up as new glass, and old plastics don't necessarily end up as new plastics.

Although recycling programs, particularly at the municipal level, have become quite popular, the debate rages on as to whether recycling makes financial sense because the costs to recycle can be substantial. Despite this disagreement, most can agree that recycling does reduce incineration, which is the most common means for disposing of landfill waste. The less there is to burn, the less harm that incineration does to the environment. And recycling does reduce the need for landfill space, which not only causes water pollution from runoff but also could contribute to global warming because decomposing products release, among other things, methane gas.

According to Recycling: Good for the Environment, Good for the Economy, a pamphlet by the California Integrated Waste Management Board, recycling one ton of waste will pay $101 in salaries and wages, produce $275 more in goods and services, and generate $135 more in sales than disposing of it in a landfill.

While each individual small business doesn't generate a large quantity of waste that could be recycled, in the aggregate, it adds up. Here are some of the most likely candidates for recycling for small businesses:

  • Paper. The most important reason for recycling paper is to keep it out of landfill sites. Newspapers alone constitute a reported 14 percent of all landfill space. Nearly 15.7 million tons of printing-writing papers were recovered in 2006 from U.S. workplaces, a significant increase from the more than 10 million tons recovered in 1995, according to the paperrecycles.org website.
  • Glass, plastic, and metal cans. The average American consumed 28.6 gallons of bottled water in 2006, up from just 1.6 gallons in 1976, according to the Beverage Marketing Corp. But eight out of every 10 bottles ends up in a landfill, each of which takes about 700 years to begin to decompose, according to the Earth911.org website.
  • Office electronics. The U.S. generated an estimated 1.5 billion pounds of electronic devices in 2006, according to Earth911. Recycling one million cell phones saves enough energy to power more than 19,000 U.S. households with electricity for an entire year, according to the EPA.

Recycling programs. One response to the waste that your office generates is to participate in a local recycling program. For recycling paper, glass, plastics, and metal cans, participation in a recycling program typically involves taking two steps. First, find someone to pick it up. Second, put recycling bins in the office. To find someone to pick up your recyclables, the best place to start is probably with the public works department in your city or county.

Recycling office electronics is a bit different. Several possibilities do exist, however.

  • Contact the same public works department you contacted for the other waste. Some communities offer electronics collections as part of their recycling program involving paper, glass, etc.
  • Look for public and private organizations that accept electronics for recycling.
  • Consider the electronic manufacturer or retailer of your electronic product. Some electronics manufacturers and retailers accept used electronics for recycling, and some offer free shipping labels through their website.
  • Consider a charitable organization.
  • Consider a repair shop.

Federal and state disposal rules. Small business owners also need to be aware of federal, state, and local rules governing the disposal of used electronics. For example, some electronics, such as cell phones, are deemed to contain "hazardous" materials and are subject to special handling rules. Individual state rules can be more stringent than the federal rules. For more information, see the EPA's discussion of ecycling rules and regulations.

In addition, while glass products typically are recycled with plastics, metal cans, and similar products, light bulbs have to be recycled separately, especially those compact fluorescent light bulbs, which contain mercury.

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